Google Chrome OS: Is Google finally jumping the shark?

Analyst Opinion – Every company reaches a point in its history where the bloom falls off the rose. I worry that Google has just hit that wall.

The company’s announcement that it’s working on its own operating system, Google Chrome OS, represents a radical change from its traditional product development cycle. Normally, Google doesn’t pre-announce anything. It develops services under its typically opaque veil of secrecy, then releases them online. To maximize buy-in from early adopters and keep the rest of the unwashed masses wishing they could actually be early adopters, it often imposes severe limits immediately after new services go live – like limiting the number of Gmail invitations and making Google Voice a signup-only affair – to further raise the I-want factor.

Keeping products in perpetual beta was another mystique-boosting tactic, though last week’s promotion of Gmail and Google Docs out of beta suggests this may be coming to an end.

Google Chrome OS isn’t available yet. It won’t be available, in fact, until late 2010. But Google’s taken a Microsoft-esque marketing approach in saying it’s already in the pipeline. To its credit, it’s already partnering with an impressive array of hardware and software companies, and will build on the project’s Linux foundations by keeping the source code open source, and setting the price at an always-friendly free. Still, despite Google’s position as the globally dominant Web services company, you’d be forgiven for concluding the company’s finally biting off more than it can chew.

Hardware vendors love this obvious shot across Microsoft’s bow because anything that allows them to shave a licensing fee out of a SKU is a welcome alternative. Consumers love it because they need ever cheaper hardware in the face of historic economic meltdown. And even if the product never ships, the pressure alone on Microsoft will keep Windows licensing costs in check.

But that begs the question: Does the world need another free operating system? Countless flavors of Linux have tried and miserably failed to take root in a PC world dominated by Windows. Early netbooks that ran Linux were soon replaced by Windows XP-based machines because consumers just couldn’t wrap themselves around the unfamiliar interface, lack of consistent vendor and market support, and hardware/driver incompatibilities.
While Google is by far the most heavyweight player to put its resources behind a top-tier Linux-based OS, don’t for a second believe that a terse announcement of a product due next year and a three-entry FAQ will immediately dismantle the Windows landscape. Old habits die hard, and the companies I work with won’t easily pick apart two decades of Windows-based investment and evolution simply because Google says they can save a few bucks per end user.

The irony that the new OS is closely related to and named after the Chrome browser is not lost on me. When it was introduced, supporters hailed Chrome as Google’s Internet Explorer killer, a signal that Google was going to build a software stack that would allow it to leverage its already-deep strengths in online search and services.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Ten months after its release, Chrome’s market share is barely 2%. And although it’s widely viewed as a capably fast product, it is also admittedly feature-incomplete compared to its major rivals. The world isn’t beating a browser-based path to Google’s door, and it won’t beat an OS-based one, either, if this is indicative of how Google operates outside its core Web services competency.

Still, I’m glad Google went public with this. A good jolt every once in a while keeps all players on their toes and forces them to drive a little harder in bringing new solutions to market. Microsoft was already pedal to the metal with final preparations for this October’s Windows 7 debut, and Google’s announcement will only add urgency to this bet-the-company release.

But a long-lead announcement by Google isn’t enough to convince me that we’re all about to dump Windows with barely a second thought and standardize on an operating system that won’t see the light of day for another year. It took two decades for Microsoft to build its Windows franchise. Google’s got a long road ahead of it if it hopes to own the machines we use as well as the online services that increasingly define how we leverage the Internet. Rome, after all, wasn’t built in a day.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian technology analyst and journalist covered with scars from his years leading IT help desks and managing software development projects for big bad insurance companies. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.